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Opinion: Lou Burnett – Baptism by legislative fire


Baptism by legislative fire

Not-so-special session

For the 29 new members of the House and the 11 new Senate members, it was a baptism by legislative fire. The recent Special Session of the Louisiana Legislature was not a pleasant experience for the newcomers, nor was it a lot of fun for veteran lawmakers.

They had 25 days to solve a $900 million shortfall in the current budget, which ends on June 30, while casting an eye at a $2 billion hole in the budget for the next fiscal year.
While chaos reigned at times and things got contentious between the Senate and the House, the $900 million budget hole was pretty much plugged with increased taxes and cuts, both painful experiences. But about $50 million still is needed to fully plug the hole.

As for next year, the actions of the Legislature reduced the shortfall from $2 billion to about $800 million. Where that money will come from is anyone’s guess. Higher education and health services, always in the cross-hairs, are already bracing for devastating cuts.

Some of the tax increases passed, including the additional one-cent sales tax, have sunset dates on them, which means more budgetary woes are expected further down the road.

The new, so-called independent, House GOP leadership patted itself on the back and took credit for most of the accomplishments of the Special Session. But truth be known, they were dragged screaming and kicking into making tough decisions by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who revealed the truth about the state’s drastic financial condition.

Several Republican legislators remained in denial about the budgetary mess, which some of them helped to create by cow-towing to former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, and voted against every tax increase. They stonewalled on many of the proposals put forth by Gov. Edwards.

State Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden, head of the Democratic Caucus, called their hand. He criticized what he called the “No Caucus,” members who voted against controversial tax increases so they could return home and boast about not voting to raise taxes.

And they could remain on good terms with the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, which would prefer that higher education and health services be cut to the bone rather than raise taxes.
“This should be a shared sacrifice. Again and again, some legislators ignored the real consequences and voted against any new revenue,” Reynolds declared. He added those lawmakers will see critical services spared in their districts, thanks to those who did make the responsible, hard votes.

Now, the next chapter begins. The Legislature is now in its 2016 Regular Session, which began on Monday, March 14, and runs through Monday, June 6.
For already tired and frustrated legislators, this session is where the rubber will meet the road. They will have to find a way to fill that $800 million (it will likely grow higher) budget gap for the next fiscal year. At stake is the future of higher education and the ability to provide health care to Louisiana’s most needy citizens.

Can Gov. Edwards provide solutions to minimize the worst case scenario? Maybe. But the big question is will Republican legislators face reality and do what is best for the state. Things should get interesting real quick.
As if wrestling with the remaining budget shortfalls is not enough, legislators will have to deal with over 1,000 bills which have been prefiled, many of which contain controversial subjects.

Among the issues on tap for the Regular Session are funding for the free tuition TOPS program, abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, Confederate monuments, and religious freedom, to mention a few.
Interesting Senate poll

There is a new poll on the Louisiana U.S. Senate race

But a word of caution. It is always prudent to determine who commissioned the poll.
In this case, it was the Make Louisiana Proud Political Action Committee, which is supporting Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy. The poll was conducted by Survey USA.

The polling firm concluded that Kennedy appears likely to advance to the runoff and defeat anyone who winds up in the runoff with him.

Lou Gehrig Burnett is a seasoned veteran of national and local politics. He publishes Fax-Net Update, a weekly political newsletter.

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